After fears that the European, and wider Western, unity over support for Ukraine might break down this winter, there have been fresh signs of resolve within the alliance this week, as the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion fast approaches.
Exhibit A is the fact that European officials are — in advance of an EU-Ukraine Summit in Kyiv this coming Friday — actively planning a 10th round of sanctions on Russia. This potentially includes capping the sale prices of exports of refined petroleum products, building on the recently introduced caps on oil and gas prices.
Exhibit B is the agreement this week by the US and Germany to deliver dozens of US-made M1 Abrams and German-made Leopard tanks. This decision was greeted with some jubilation in Kyiv, which wants the heavy armor delivered quickly so it can be deployed on the battlefield as soon as possible.
These and other recent developments have led some to suggest that the war might have reached a critical turning point. For example, former US Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges predicted that Ukrainian forces will make sweeping gains this year and oust Russia from occupied territory in the Crimea.
This forecast should not be dismissed out of hand. It should be remembered that when Russia launched its three-pronged invasion in February 2022, its goal of erasing Ukraine as a sovereign nation within a matter of days was widely seen in the West as being plausible.
Nearly a year later, however, Ukraine has taken back at least half of the initial territory seized by Russia. Moreover, as Ukrainian victories on the battlefield mount up, allies in Europe and the wider West, especially the US, are supplying Kyiv with increasingly sophisticated weapons, as this week’s tank agreement illustrates.
Yet, as much as Ukraine has managed to turn the tables on Russia, it will be exceptionally hard for Kyiv to drive out all of Moscow’s forces from occupied territories this year. This core point was highlighted this month by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the nation’s top-ranking military officer, who said this would be “very, very difficult” to achieve but added that this “doesn’t mean it can’t happen, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Moreover, tensions remain in European and wider Western policy circles insofar as allies there clearly want to ensure Ukraine has enough financing and weaponry to avoid losing the war, but are much more hesitant about providing Kyiv the resources it needs to go one step further and potentially win it decisively.
This political factor was clearly in play in recent weeks during the decision-making process in Germany and the US over the tanks. Both Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Joe Biden stressed the defensive nature of the decision, stating that they are “helping Ukraine protect land” rather than become an “offensive threat.”
This frustrates many in Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that “progress must be made in other aspects of our defense cooperation,” including equipping the Ukrainian air force with technologically advanced fighter jets.
However, a significant number of European and wider Western governments remain opposed to such a development, fearing the aircraft might be used to strike targets inside Russia. In Scholz’s speech to the Bundestag in Berlin on Wednesday outlining the details of the agreement to supply tanks, for instance, he stated there would be “no fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine.”
Nevertheless, with broad support for Ukraine remaining steadfast in Europe and the wider Western alliance for now, attention and speculation is shifting to the issue of Russia’s staying power in Ukraine.
There is no question that Putin is under immense pressure. However, the balance of probability suggests that he can hold onto power for the foreseeable future, until at least the next presidential election in March 2024, unless the war begins to go exceptionally badly for Russia in coming months.
Beyond that, however, the outlook is much more murky. It should be remembered that Russia has a history of regime change in the aftermath of unsuccessful wars (if that is what Ukraine ultimately proves to be), from the Bolshevik Revolution after the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War, to the collapse of the Soviet Union following its defeat in Afghanistan.
Yet not all previous Russian military defeats brought about great social and political change. So in the face of defeat in Ukraine, as in the case after Joseph Stalin’s failure to conquer Finland in 1939-40, Russia’s subdued elites might ultimately choose not to mount a serious challenge to their leader.
Amid this significant uncertainty, the most likely outcome this year is a continuing war of attrition. While Europe and the wider West might well be doing enough to ensure Ukraine does not lose, the Ukrainians might lack the ability in the coming months to deliver a knock-out military blow.